And yes, I’ve already decided I’ll drop them off. Why not?
I have no idea what kind of world I’ll be returning to. Thirteen years have passed on Earth since I left, and they’ll experience another thirteen before I get back. Twenty-six years. All my students will be adults. I hope they all survive. But I have to admit…some probably won’t. I try not to dwell.
Anyway, once I get back to my solar system, I may as well swing by Venus and drop off the Taumoeba. Not sure how I’ll seed it, but I have a few ideas. The simplest is just to wad up a ball of Taumoeba-infested Astrophage and throw it at Venus. The Astrophage will absorb the heat of reentry and the Taumoeba will be released into the wild. Then they’ll have a field day. Venus must be Astrophage-central by now, and lord knows Taumoeba can get right to work once they find their prey.
I check my food stores. I’m still on schedule. I have another three months of real, edible food packs left, and then it’ll be coma slurry from then on.
I’m reluctant to go back into a coma. I’ve got the genes to survive it, but so did Yáo and Ilyukhina. Why risk death if I don’t have to?
Also, I can’t be 100 percent sure I correctly reprogrammed the course navigation. I think it’s right, and whenever I spot-check, I’m still on course toward home. But what if something goes wrong while I’m in a coma? What if I wake up and I missed the solar system by a light-year?
But between isolation, loneliness, and disgusting food, I may be willing to take those risks eventually. We’ll see.
Speaking of loneliness, my thoughts turn back to Rocky. My only friend now. Seriously. He’s my only friend. I didn’t have much of a social life back when things were normal. Sometimes I’d grab dinner with other faculty and staff at the school. I’d have the occasional Saturday-night beer with old college friends. But thanks to time dilation, when I get home all those folks will be a generation older than me.
I liked Dimitri. He was probably my favorite of the whole Hail Mary gang. But who knows what he’s up to now? Heck, Russia and the United States may be at war. Or they may be allies in a war. I have no idea.
I climb the ladder to the control room. I sit in the pilot’s seat and bring up the Nav panel. I really shouldn’t do this, but it’s become a bit of a ritual. I shut off the spin drives and coast. Gravity immediately disappears, but I hardly notice. I’m used to it.
With the spin drives off, I can safely use the Petrovascope. I scan around in space for a bit—I know where to look. I quickly find it. The little dot of Petrova-frequency light. The Blip-A’s engines. If I were within a hundred kilometers of that light, my entire ship would be vaporized.
I’m on one side of the system and he’s on the other. Heck, even Tau Ceti itself just looks like a lightbulb in the distance. But I can still clearly make out the Blip-A’s engine flare. Using light as a propellant releases a simply absurd amount of power.
Maybe that’s something we could use in the future. Maybe Earth and Erid could communicate with massive releases of Petrova light thanks to Astrophage. I wonder how much it would take to make a flash visible from 40 Eridani. We could talk in Morse code or something. They have a copy of Wikipedia now. They’d work out what we’re up to when they saw the flashes.
Still, our “conversation” would be slow. 40 Eridani is sixteen light-years away from Earth. So if we sent a message like “Hey, how ya doin’?” it would be thirty-two years before we got their reply.
I stare at the little point of light on the screen and sigh. I’ll be able to track him for quite a while. I know where his ship will be at any given moment. He’ll use the exact flight plan I gave him. He trusts my science as much as I trust his engineering. But after a few months, the Petrovascope won’t be able to see the light anymore. Not because the light is too dim—it’s a very sensitive instrument. It won’t be able to see him because our relative velocities will cause a red-shift in the light coming off his drives. It won’t be the Petrova wavelength anymore when it gets to me.
What? Would I do a ridiculous amount of relativistic math to calculate our relative velocity at any given moment as perceived by my inertial reference frame and then do Lorentz transformations to figure out when the light from his engines will drop out of the Petrovascope’s perception range? Just so I know how much longer I can see my friend in the distance? Wouldn’t that be kind of pathetic?
Okay, my sad little daily ritual is over. I turn off the Petrovascope and fire up the spin drives again.
* * *
I check my dwindling supply of real food. I’ve been “on the road” for thirty-two days now. According to my calculations, fifty-one days from now I’ll be completely reliant on coma slurry.
I go to the dormitory. “Computer. Provide coma food substance sample.”
The mechanical arms reach into their supply area and come back with a bag of white powder and drop it on the bunk.
I pick up the bag. Of course it’s a powder. Why would they include the liquid in the long-term storage? The water system of the Hail Mary is a closed loop. Water goes into me, it comes out of me in various ways, and then it’s purified and reused.
I take the package to the lab, open it up, and pour some powder in a beaker.
I add a little water, give it a stir, and it becomes a milky-white slurry. I give it a sniff. It doesn’t really smell like anything. So I take a sip.
It takes effort, but I resist the urge to spit it out. It tastes like aspirin. That nasty pill-like taste. I’m going to have to eat this Bitter Pill Chow™ every meal for several years.
Maybe a coma isn’t that bad.
I set the beaker aside. I’ll deal with that misery when the time comes. For now, I’m going to work on the beetles.
I have four little Taumoeba farms, courtesy of Rocky. Each one is a steel-ish capsule no larger than my hand. I say “steel-ish” because it’s some Eridian alloy of steel that humans haven’t invented yet. It’s much harder than any metal alloys we have, but not harder than diamond-cutting tools.
We went back and forth on the mini-farm casing. The obvious first choice was to make it out of xenonite. The problem is: How would Earth scientists get in? None of our tools would be able to cut it. The only option would be extremely high heat. And that risks harming the Taumoeba inside.
I suggested a xenonite container with a lid. Something that could be clamped down tight like a pressure door. I’d leave instructions on the USB stick on how to safely open it. Rocky rejected that idea right away. No matter how good the seal was, it wouldn’t be perfect. Over the two years that the farm will experience during the trip, enough air could leak out to suffocate the Taumoeba inside. He insisted the whole farm be a single, completely sealed container. Probably a good idea.